Nosferatu’s Shadow Review

“Daviot has an intensity, a stare that draws you in, and a presence that demands your attention.” 5 stars

I have never been a fan of Dracula.  Vampires just don’t do anything for me; I’ve always preferred ghosts to their more physical horror counterparts.  I tried reading Dracula once and could never get through it.  And so I didn’t get round to watching the horror classic Nosferatu;  not until recently when I had a day in bed, ill, watching movies on Youtube.  I do like silent movies (The Lodger is beautiful work) and so I spent an afternoon watching a few, Nosferatu was one.

The story of the movie itself is a fascinating one- made and released but without paying royalties (it was an unlicensed version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula) it was sentenced to destruction, and yet enough prints survived it has become a masterpiece.

I have seen parts of Nosferatu’s Shadow, Michael Daviot’s biographical account of the life of Count Orlock actor Max Schrek, several times before when he has performed it at variety nights.  So I knew a certain amount of what to expect before going in.  One man theatre shows can be dull if you don’t have the right combination of actor, writer and topic.  Fortunately, this show had them all.

The play starts with Max’s death, a voice over gives part of a eulogy for the late actor and it is from there we get the life story of the thespian.  Starting with his youth and troubled relationship with his father, we proceed to his early film work, meeting his wife and spend time with him as he works on Nosferatu.  I have always thought of Schrek as a horror actor so I was surprised to learn this was the only horror movie he made.  He really did live his life in the shadow of this one film.

Had he lived longer, we may know more about him and his work, but he died whilst Hitler (whom Schrek is presented as hating) was growing his power base.  The play itself is fairly linear, which is a positive thing, as there is so much to cover a lesser writer may have been tempted to jump around more for “artistic reasons”.  Thankfully the script, also by solo actor Daviot, flows from one point in Schreks life to another seamlessly.  The play is punctuated at points by Daviot striking the famous shadow pose of Count Orlock to recite lines from the movie.  Being a silent film, this may be the first time many people hear these words spoken aloud and it is an interesting experiment to see how they may have been delivered.

It is a touching piece in many areas, one such moment is when Max becomes agitated and angry over an implied question as to why he stays in Germany despite the rising of the right.  The scene in question is powerful and really makes one consider what one would do in a similar situation.  How easy is it to uproot your entire life, love, work, career, friends, family and everything you know when at this time you yourself are not the target?  It is suggested, had Schrek lived, he would have been seen as an undesirable and faced persecution for his left wing leanings, and maybe had he lived he would have done what many of his contemporaries did and flee.   But in an emotionally pounding scene we see the very real struggle that very real people experienced, we begin to understand why many might have chosen to remain and it makes us question our own decisions.  With the hindsight of history we may ask why didn’t more just flee, but when we see the reality it is hard to argue or condemn Schrek – and the others- for this decision.

It is also interesting hearing the full story behind the film, and to learn that the producer spent more on the launch party than he did on the movie, and then declared bankruptcy when the Stoker estate rightly filed a violation of copyright suit.

The space is just right for this performance, anything larger and we’d lose the intensity that Daviot brings to the role.  Anything smaller and we’d lose the power of the man. The set is simple- a stool and a bench.  Upon the bench sits a cooks hat and a black, long leather coat.  Both used to represent different characters but the standout use of them is when Schrek talks of his relationship with Bertolt Brecht and drapes the coat over an upturned bench, acting as puppet master over the theatre legend.

There really are some inspired choices in this play and director Robert Williamson uses mime and an almost empty stage so well it is beautiful to watch.  One little moment early on really drew me in because it seemed so natural and so real- when Schrek bats away a bird flying past him in the opening minutes.  It is one of those tiny little details that allow you to sit in the open air with Max and really believe you are there.

Daviot is a theatrical powerhouse, sliding between time periods and scenarios with such ease you are never for a moment taken out of the piece despite its fourth wall breaking nature. You feel for Max, and you sympathise with him.  I don’t know German, so the scenes in which he spoke in the language were lost on me- though thankfully a translation of one longer speech is provided.  Sadly we did not have time to read it before the show as suggested however so I read along as best I could.  This is not a fault of the production, just one of timing at the Fringe meaning we as an audience don’t get chance to settle in before the action begins.  I’ve always felt a longer change over period would benefit, especially theatre, acts at the Fringe, but that would mean losing an act a day and therefore the revenue!

I can’t find a thing to fault with the production, some have criticised the short vignettes of Daviot striking the shadow pose between scenes, but for me these helped to remind me just how much the role took over the actors’ life.  This play is a beautiful, touching production and Daviot brings to life the late Schrek and actually makes me want to actively seek out more of the mans work.  Daviot has an intensity, a stare that draws you in, and a presence that demands your attention. Many plays have me looking at my watch when it comes to fringe theatre, but I didn’t once feel the urge and even found that time flew by far too quickly. I wanted to spend more time in that world, more time with Max.

Nosferatu’s Shadow is playing at Sweet venues, Grassmarket at 21:35 until August 28th.  Tickets are £10/£8 and available from:

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